I’m excited to share this special expanded edition of Gwarlingo’s Sunday Poem series with you. The Utopia Minus Project is an art and poetry collaboration that has been in the works for nearly twelve months now.
Poet Susan Briante and visual artist Margaret Lanzetta have been long-time admirers of each other’s work, but when Lanzetta began a new series of paintings inspired by American highways and Briante published her latest book Utopia Minus (also infused with images of American highways), both artists realized that there were certain affinities between their projects that they were interested in exploring.
For the past year they’ve been collaborating by creating their own unique pairings of their work (one example is an edition of screen prints for Headlamp). For this special online version of the project, they asked me to curate my own combinations. I’ve spent a lot of time with both Susan and Margaret’s art over the past many months, and during that time, my appreciation for their talent has only grown.
I’ve loved Margaret Lanzetta’s striking paintings from the first moment I saw them at The MacDowell Colony in 2001. Her work draws inspiration from nature, Islamic architecture, Buddhism, and sixties’s pop. Lanzetta works in multiples and creates series on specific themes. Silk screening is an integral part of her process: oil and enamel, used fluidly with very porous screens results in rich, layered, tactile surfaces. Drawing inspiration from Warhol’s forays into seriality and abstraction, her patterns migrate, collide, and reappear from painting to painting, series to series.
The Company Paintings series (which you can see samples of on The Utopia Minus page) synthesize Lanzetta’s experiences in both India and Syria. The series title comes from the term for works commissioned by the East India Company to document India at the turn of the century. Each painting is titled after a remote Indian city and its numerical telephone area code. The entire series was done using only four different silkscreens printed in different combinations. Stripes compete with a palette of neon orange, pink, yellow and red, referencing both the intensity of spiritual devotion and industrial OSHA “safety” colors from the industrial arena. The sacred and the concrete are melded.
Lanzetta has spent the past year in Morocco, where her latest series Reign Marks was created. As you can see in the below image, Dharma Index, her color palette has become brighter and bolder in this new series. (Look for Carol Schwarzman’s upcoming review of the Reign Marks show at Le Cube Independent Art Room, Rabat, Morocco, in the Brooklyn Rail.)
Although Susan Briante is also a MacDowell fellow, I only discovered her poetry a year ago. I’m officially declaring her book Utopia Minus (from Ahshata Press) one of my all-time favorite poetry books. Yes. It’s that good.
Briante has an uncanny ability to find the beauty and poignancy in the everyday. She has a photographer’s eye combined with a pitch-perfect ear and a poet’s gift for language. I can’t think of a book I’ve read recently that captures America so well. Like the photographers Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, and Robert Adams, she can transform a seemingly banal scene into a transcendent experience. She is an honest poet—one who doesn’t shy away from ugliness or imperfection.
I was reminded of this passage from Robert Adams’ book Beauty in Photography as I was reading, and re-reading, Utopia Minus, for everything Adams says about landscape photography could also be said about Briante’s work:
“Attention only to perfection…invites eventually for urban viewers—which means most of us—a crippling disgust; our world is in most places far from clean. Photographs that suggest an Arcadian landscape are recognizable from the city dweller’s perspective as partial visions, and they make us uneasy…
Photography that acknowledges what is wrong, is admittedly in some respects hard to bear—it has to encompass our mistakes. Yet in the long run, it is important; in order to endure our age of apocalypse, we have to be reconciled not only to avalanche and earthquake and hurricane, but to ourselves.”
For this special project, I’ve selected ten poems by Susan Briante and paired them with ten of Margaret Lanzetta’s paintings. The point of arranging these works together is not to impose any specific interpretation, but simply to highlight them and present them as a whole, so you can contemplate the poems and images much as you would in a gallery or at a poetry reading.
The pieces I’ve chosen by Lanzetta cover her entire career. They were selected not only because they are amazing artworks, but also because they share some resonance with specific poems by Susan. I encourage you to peruse Margaret’s website so you can see these works within their larger context. Each series has its own unique style, which is worth viewing in its entirety.
For this expanded edition of the Sunday Poem series, I also asked Susan and Margaret to reflect on each other’s work. Their short, insightful essays are included below.
I highly recommend Briante’s Utopia Minus, as well as Margaret Lanzetta’s catalog Pet the Pretty Tiger: Works 1990-2010. A limited edition set of Lanzetta’s Myths in Translation series (shown below) is also available from Art We Love. Prints start at just $50.
To view The Utopia Minus Project, please visit this special page on the Gwarlingo website, where Lanzetta and Briante’s collaboration can be experienced full screen.
Weave Rip Grind
Susan Briante on the work of Margaret Lanzetta
A dazzling surface beauty first drew me to Margaret Lanzetta’s work. At the time, she was layering rich patterns over large canvases that referenced ancient textiles, elaborate wallpaper, or tile work. But the patterns were always rendered somewhat incomplete, so they seemed like fragments, images of a weave disintegrating before our eyes. I take a post-romantic view of decay that comes by way of Robert Smithson and a childhood in postindustrial New Jersey. When I think of ruin I think of the abandoned factories I see when I ride the train from the suburbs to New York City. I think of the foreclosed homes I see everywhere. Those structures tell a story. What was once a skatepark, now looks like a cathedral. I feel comfortable around that which references both what perishes as well as what persists.
Once I looked beyond that seductive surface of Lanzetta’s paintings, I realized that she was not just replicating traditional patterns inspired by details of Islamic architecture, Buddhist symbols, the sacred and the profane from any number of foreign cultures. Layered within her work were patterns taken from plastic fruit containers, scrap metal, gears and cogs. I think that’s when I realized our affinity. I write with a guide to Texas birds and a power-industry dictionary on the shelf behind me. Poetry is big enough to hold the whole view out my window: plastic watering can, pebbles on the patio, oversized white pick up truck hauling lawn crew equipment, a city’s history in the view to the drought park. No need to be romantic. If we can’t learn to love, we should at least learn to see every green plastic basket. The manmade and the organic mesh and grind against one another in Lanzetta’s work just as they do in that view out my window, just as I want them to do in my poems.
And while Lanzetta’s gaze is inclusive it is also critical, aware of the histories and politics behind what she sees. A series of paintings inspired by her Fullbright research fellowship to India takes its title, The Company Paintings, from works commissioned by the East India Company to document colonial India. Likewise poems in my most recent collection, Utopia Minus, seek to render a history, documenting sites that have become all too familiar—from half-constructed corporate headquarters to vacant strip malls. Drawing from source texts as varied as Whitman’s Specimen Days and Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, these poems direct the gaze to relics of American economic and social past: an old concrete foundry, an abandoned flower shop, the backroads of our lesser counties. The work asks the reader to see a monument in the “last crop between the tollway and the condos” and to consider the stories inscribed as well as erased from our landscape.
Looking at landscape in some of her most recent pieces, Lanzetta drives color as geometric lines rip across the canvas in works such as
NH47 Southwest, NH5 Southeast, NH2 West, NH7 South
Lanzetta’s titles reference national highways, but her use of numbers “frames” both the abstract and the spiritual. Line after line of color offer “a mantra like” practice of repetition (to quote Lanzetta) more than industrial reproductive precision. The lines repeat, but the paint stutters and fades. The handiwork shows in the canvases.
In my own current project I use numbers as well to frame the personal and spiritual in a series of poems that address our current economic crisis by recording the daily closing number of the Dow:
October 14—The Dow Closes Up 10015
October 16—The Dow Closes Up 11143
May 10—The Dow Closes Up 12760
June 4—The Dow Closes Down 9931
And like Lanzetta’s highway numbers, the closing numbers of the Dow frame as well as influence poems that express intimacies (another mark of handiwork) as well as abstraction.
Ruin and repetition. Histories and intimacies. Among many convergences, Lanzetta and I share a love for the unexpected intersections—and a desire to explore all that the canvas or the lyric might hold.
“Sex can be such a lonely country”
Margaret Lanzetta on the work of Susan Briante
What captivates me about Susan’s poetry is its Zen-like quality of living in the moment. Celebrations of the poetic and minute, fleeting slivers of nature, beauty, history are all tempered with the sobering full-frontal here and now. “Bird calls of pistols.” Joy is a brief burst, leveled by reality. The often grim Present is evenhandedly and directly confronted. “The future is buried.”
What drew me to collaborate with Susan is our shared interest in blending a convergence of cultural and natural inspirations, while also mining the palimpsests of place. Our significant themes are poetically and physically rooted. Dying cities, foreign cultures, historical sites and secret grottos, while paved in the present, all bear traces of natural beauty overlaid with historical events, forgotten dreams, persistent and insistent legacies of ambition. “Commerce in the black-eyed susans.” But the personal always prevails. “The mind is an ancient city.”
In my work, Nature, as both inspiration and eclipser of culture, is an overriding subject. By combining visual systems from nature and both the developing and industrial worlds, independently existing cultural and natural imprints are linked and questioned. With this metaphysical link of culture and nature, the works connect the personal search with a larger existing order; and a search for intimacy through seemingly very rigid or impersonal structures materializes.
Click here to view the Gwarlingo debut of The Utopia Minus Project by Susan Briante and Margaret Lanzetta.
Books by Susan Briante